Moving the Palace

Written by Charif Majdalani Edward Gauvin (trans.)
Review by India Edghill

The first thing you need to know about this novel is that it’s pretty much an exotic mood piece and travelogue. It’s delightful, but don’t look for a normal straight-line plot. It’s more like reading a beautiful dream. In 1908—or maybe in 1909—Samuel Ayyad leaves Lebanon for the Sudan, where he works for the British as a sort of agent-of-all-trades. None of this matters much, and elsewhere Shafik Abyad, a merchant-of-all-trades, has fallen in love with a deserted palace in Tripoli, and bought it. But the palace is unsellable, so Shafik decides to find a buyer somewhere else, and dismantles the palace, packs it up, and loads it on camels.

And so, the palace’s journey begins. Time unfurls along with miles, and while no one ever buys the palace, everyone along its path is dazzled by the very concept of a moving palace. (As is the reader—at least this reader was dazzled!) Eventually Samuel’s path crosses that of the moving palace and he travels with Shafik as he attempts to sell the gorgeous “white elephant” he’s stuck with. Finally, Shafik abandons the palace, and Samuel takes it on, leading to a charming happy ending. The plot is so ridiculous it sounds like real life, and the language is playfully enchanting—the translator did a marvelous job. The landscape is almost visible, and the sense of heat and sand and the effort of traveling the desert nearly tangible. Moving the Palace provides a delightful armchair ramble through a long-gone time and place.